A persistent myth about psychopaths involves the belief that they are callous, emotional void criminals (particularly serial killers). The mass media (e.g., television shows, films, and books) often reinforces this inaccurate image. For example, a recent ABC program, "Secrets of Your Mind," presented a story of an incarcerated terrifying serial killer/psychopath who was diagnosed as having brain abnormalities in regulating his emotions.

Two facts contradict the false belief. First, a number (possibly most) of psychopaths are found in managerial or power positions rather than in prison/jail (see my early post: Why some psychopaths are in leadership positions and fellow blogger Sandra Brown's pertinent post). From the perspective of evolutionary biology, psychopaths flourish in society because most of them actually have the skill to avoid prison. Both criminal and managerial psychopaths are detrimental to others' well beings. However, unlike the violent criminals who rely on physical aggression to maintain their control over individuals, managerial psychopaths are inclined to employ verbal brutality, deception, and emotional abuse and ploys to ruin people's lives.

Second, psychopaths do not lack emotions. Emotions can be divided into self-serving and pro-other ones. Although they lack pro-other or social emotions, they have plenty of self-serving and/or maladaptive emotions. Psychopaths in power positions are good at harming and controlling others in part because they know how to use emotions to manipulate others at the expense of others' well beings.

Research and observations show that managerial psychopaths possess many self-serving and/or maladaptive emotions, such as: Arrogance, grandiosity, pleasure, anger, rage, hostility, contempt, overweening, envy, jealousy, greed, suspiciousness, impatience, and irritability. Because of their superficial charm, people often misperceive their impulsivity and unscrupulousness as being courageous and determined, and mistake their self-inflation and self-admiration as signs of self confidence.

On the other hand, research and observations also reveal that psychopaths are severely deficient in pro-other emotions, such as: Love, compassion, gratefulness, peacefulness, pleasantness, sympathy, guilt, remorse, empathy, and general moral emotions (e.g., shame, anxiety, and fear). Certainly, they pretend to mimic the emotions, but theirs are very shallow and artificial.

One question remains to be answered: Why do emotionally intelligent, nice people often become the victims of the psychopaths, who have abusive tempers and exhibit glibness, irresponsibility, and deception with an excessive need for control and interference corresponding to their sense of incompetency? In my observations, this is because managerial psychopaths use emotions, including your emotions, to advance their interests.

Let me use a midlevel manager as an example. He used three typical tricks to defeat his victims:

First, he constantly told lies to another as long as it helped maintain his control over the person. The victim, who attempted to communicate with the manager always met frustrations because the boss always denied what he did or justified his actions by saying "What's wrong with it?"

Second, although the manager had no guilty feelings, he managed to make his abused victim feel inadequate by repeating "It is Ok" (right after his violent emotional outburst against the person who disagreed with him). Basically, he made the victim feel that the victim's normal emotional reaction to the abuse was overreacting. As the result, the victim felt guilty.

Third, he was good at using another's empathy. Although anger was his primary temper for controlling others, he was excelled in shifting his emotional expressions from extreme angry to extreme sadness, automatically or voluntarily. Suddenly, he appeared to be a helpless and sad person, needing immediately to be babied by others, arousing his victims' empathy right away (This shift is part of his performance, different from the emotional instability as observed in borderline personality disorders).

How to deal with them? I agree with Martha Stout's suggestion that the best method to deal with psychopaths is to detach from them or the situations in which they operate.

However, I do not share the consensus that there is neither a cure nor any effective treatment for psychopathy, which has a strong genetic component. I think that the late British psychologist Hans Eysenck's research on conditionability and conscience sheds a light on psychopathy (even though he has not examined psychopathy per se). Eysenck contended that people who are impulsive, lack (or have not learned) the sense of guilt or conscience have low conditionability, which was influenced by the process of classical conditioning, particularly during childhood. Although the limbic system regulates the effectiveness of classical conditioning, more frequent and intensive conditioning processes can improve the innate low conditionability.

In short, psychopaths represent a much more complicated category than the offenders portrayed in the media. They thrive not because they lack emotions in general, but because they use emotions (in addition to other tricks) to control others.

About the Author

Key Sun Ph.D.

Key Sun, Ph.D., is a psychologist and social worker. He has taught at Central Washington University and Bastyr University.

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